Emotional Support Animals: The Basics
Many people are familiar with service animals. These animals, which must be either a large dog or a small horse, are specifically trained to assist people with disabilities, such as blindness, deafness, epilepsy, paralysis, and more. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a person may qualify for a service animal if they have a condition that limits or makes it difficult to perform an important life activity. Animals that assist people with these disabilities are protected by law, and may enter establishments and homes that otherwise do not allow animals. Usually, a service animal is required to wear an identifying vest with a pocket to carry its paperwork, and though it can be tempting to pet and cuddle these furry helpers, the public is discouraged from doing so, as it can distract the animal from its job.
Disability animals have been around for years, and are not going anywhere anytime soon. However, a more recent development in providing support for people with disabilities are animals that are designated “Emotional Support Animals.” These animals can be any type of domesticated animal such as a cat, bird, rabbit, even rats and snakes! Unlike service animals, ESAs do not require any training, as their presence alone provides comfort and relaxation for people with emotional and/or psychological disabilities, such as depression, general anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. One major difference between ESAs and service animals is that, while service animals cannot legally be denied entrance to any establishment, ESAs are not protected by any law other than the Fair Housing Act. Basically, this means that a shopping mall or convenience store can deny you the right to bring your Emotional Support Animal inside with you, but if you are living in an apartment building or house that does not allow pets, that requirement must be waived so that your furry friend can live with you and continue to provide support.
How Do I Get Approved for an ESA?
In order for an animal to qualify as an ESA, the owner must have an emotional disability, as diagnosed by a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist. Once an owner is diagnosed, his/her psychiatrist must write a letter that states that the patient is being treated for an emotional disability or disorder, that this disorder limits the patient’s daily life, and that an ESA has been prescribed as part of an ongoing treatment plan. An ESA is almost always prescribed in addition to therapy and medication, if necessary, as a supplement to treatment as opposed to the only treatment. Additionally, the letter must include the psychiatrist’s license type, number, and date of issue.
What Are the Downsides?
While there are many benefits to having an Emotional Support Animal, it is still a system that is trying to work out the kinks. For example, while service dogs are highly trained to be obedient and perform their jobs, ESAs do not have to undergo any training and, therefore, can cause behavioral problems in public spaces. Additionally, on the tier of disabilities, a condition requiring a service dog takes priority over someone who may have an allergy to that animal. On a college campus, for example, if two students are assigned to the same class and one has a service dog while the other is allergic to dogs, the student with the allergy will be moved to another class. ESAs do not have this same type of protection. This means that college campuses can exclude them from coming anywhere on campus except for the dorms, as living accommodations are protected under the Fair Housing Act. Similarly, public places like shopping malls, grocery stores, libraries, and other places that generally do not allow animals do not have to make an exception for ESAs.
Another concern is that people are requesting ESAs who do not actually need them. Because ESAs are a relatively new concept and not everyone is familiar with the rules, there are some sites online that will, for a fee, provide a form stating that an ESA is needed. People use these types of services in order to get around any “no pets” policies in their living situations, as the ESAs cannot be denied.
Even though the system is not perfect, there are still huge benefits to having Emotional Support Animals prescribed for those with emotional disabilities. They have been proven to be effective in helping patients improve their self-esteem, social skills, motivation, and comfort levels. A scientific fact is that being around animals triggers a “feel-good” hormone called oxytocin. Because of this, ESAs can even be an alternative to mood altering medications.
The medical field is making great strides toward improving treatment for mental illness. There is little doubt that, eventually, Emotional Support Animals will be as widespread as trained service dogs.